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NJSIAA to vote Monday on controversial football split

Holy Cross football coach Frank Holmes gets fired up about weight-room workouts, offensive-line play and the New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association's plan to change the landscape of his beloved sport.

Lonnie Moore of Paul VI runs past Camden Catholic's Jeremy Nutt on Nov. 26. Separating non-public schools could negatively impact football programs in the smaller schools like Paul VI. CHARLES FOX / Staff
Lonnie Moore of Paul VI runs past Camden Catholic's Jeremy Nutt on Nov. 26. Separating non-public schools could negatively impact football programs in the smaller schools like Paul VI. CHARLES FOX / StaffRead more

Holy Cross football coach Frank Holmes gets fired up about weight-room workouts, offensive-line play and the New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association's plan to change the landscape of his beloved sport.

Holmes believes South Jersey has found a way for public and non-public programs to peacefully coexist under the auspices of the West Jersey Football League.

He can't understand why the NJSIAA is asking its general membership to vote Monday on a proposal that would create a statewide, non-public football conference that could create an air of uncertainty around the sport that borders on chaos.

"This really gets my blood boiling," Holmes said. "What are you doing? We're fine down here [in South Jersey]. Leave us alone. Leave us the hell alone."

Holmes isn't the only coach or administrator who views Monday's general membership meeting at the Pines Manor in Edison with a kind of apocalyptic dread.

Paul VI athletic director Tony Mitchell, a member of the NJSIAA's executive committee, has been outspoken in his criticism of the proposal, suggesting it would do major damage to many non-public football programs.

Bishop Eustace coach Rob Cormier wonders whether his small-school program will be able to survive under the conditions of a statewide, non-public football conference, which likely would involve competition against larger schools with stronger programs as well as much more extensive travel.

"It could be a death sentence," Cormier said. "For Bishop Eustace, for Gloucester Catholic, for Holy Spirit and Holy Cross, the smaller non-publics, this could really be trouble.

"I don't want to see the death of this program on my watch"

Others in the South Jersey non-public football community view the possibility of a statewide conference from a different angle.

"I'm OK with staying where we are in the West Jersey," Camden Catholic coach Nick Strom said. "But if they put us in a non-public conference, I'd be OK with that, too.

"If we play all the non-public schools, those would be some great games. Down here, that would be the prime-time division, with games that people want to see."

St. Augustine athletic director Mike Rizzo also believes a statewide, non-public football conference could be a positive for the Hermits, who have developed into one of South Jersey's strongest programs and have aspirations of competing against North Jersey superpowers such as Don Bosco Prep and Bergen Catholic.

The proposal to create a statewide, non-public football conference will be one of five questions asked of the general membership at Monday's meeting.

A majority vote of schools that fill out ballots is needed for the proposal to pass.

Even if the proposal passes, the legislation likely will face a legal challenge from non-public schools, especially those in the southern part of the state.

"You know there's going to be lawsuits," Mitchell said.

In addition, the legislation would have be to be approved by New Jersey Commissioner of Education David Hespe.

"I've been telling my parents that it's going to pass but that we're still likely to play the next two years in the West Jersey because there's going to be a legal fight," Cormier said.

When the proposal for the statewide, non-public conference first emerged from the NJSIAA's public/non-public committee in the spring, the organization invited all the state's non-public schools to a meeting to discuss possible bylaws, division alignments and crossover scheduling.

But the highly contentious meeting was marked by strident complaints from several officials and reluctance of many others to cooperate for fear that their engagement in the process would be construed as support for the proposal.

One mock-up of possible divisions and crossover games that was presented at the meeting had Bishop Eustace playing Bergen Catholic and Camden Catholic playing Don Bosco Prep in regular-season games.

"We'd never survive," Eustace's Cormier said. "We had 25 kids this year. We barely survived playing Cumberland, Highland and Woodrow Wilson."

Travel is another concern.

"I'm not getting on a bus to ride an hour-and-a-half for games four or five times a year," Holmes said. "That would bankrupt our program."

Holmes also thinks a schedule that would require Holy Cross to play St. Augustine and Paul VI in a southern division of non-public schools would be unfair as well.

"When Delran plays Cherokee, I'll play Paul VI and St. Augustine," Holmes said, noting the vast disparity in enrollment between his school and the others.

Monday's vote comes at a time of increasingly strained relations between non-public and public programs in many sports.

The legislation was created by the NJSIAA's public/non-public committee, which was formed to examine issues - including recruiting and transfers for athletic advantage - that have arisen from the emergence of powerhouse non-public programs in football and basketball in the northern part of the state.

Those issues have existed in South Jersey for years. But they've bubbled to the surface with more frequency in recent times, as non-public schools have felt pressure to improve their athletic programs as part of a comprehensive strategy to maintain or increase their enrollment in challenging financial conditions.

The Cape-Atlantic League has struggled for the last several years to create a football schedule, with many public schools reluctant to play the league's non-public teams - Holy Spirit, St. Augustine and St. Joseph.

Those difficulties led the Cape-Atlantic League to seek a merger with the West Jersey Football League, which is scheduled to take effect for the 2016 season.

But even with a projected 95 teams, the WJFL is experiencing difficulty in crafting schedules, with many public schools expressing misgivings about playing some of the more competitive non-public programs, citing their advantages in drawing students from an unlimited geographic area.

"I think the public schools have the advantage," Holy Cross' Holmes said. "Their tuition is free."

Some observers think this football vote - along with a proposal on the ballot to separate non-publics into their own districts and region for wrestling - could signal the start of momentous change in athletics in the state, leading to a complete separation.

"Look at Bishop Eustace baseball and Gloucester Catholic baseball," Cormier said. "They're kind of like the Don Bosco of baseball down here. What's to stop public schools down here from saying, 'Hey, we don't want to play them in baseball? It's unfair.' "

Critics of the proposal say the legislation regards non-public sports programs as monolithic - as if Bishop Eustace Prep and Don Bosco Prep were the same, when they are light-years apart in terms of financial commitment, scheduling, facilities and competitive strength.

Non-public officials say that there are as many differences in non-public programs as there are in public programs. In addition, there are wide variations in the strength of programs within the same non-public school.

The best example: Gloucester Catholic baseball, perhaps the state's strongest program, and Gloucester Catholic football, which has lost 25 games in a row.

Cormier and others believes passage of this proposal could move some of the South Jersey non-public schools to move in that drastic direction - even if it means withdrawing from the NJSIAA and forming their own association.

"We should just tell the NJSIAA to [leave us alone]," Cormier said.

Holmes, Cormier and others believe the vote will pass because of the resentment of such a large percentage of public schools toward non-public schools, especially in North Jersey, but among several South Jersey public schools as well.

They also believe passage of the proposal will result in a lengthy and complicated legal tussle, with the future format of scholastic sports in New Jersey at stake.

"I'm 100 percent for legal action against the state," Holmes said.